Why you should care

A revival of youth involvement in Japanese politics might balance out the weight of the old, conservative men who currently run the country.

Nearly fifty years. That’s how long it’s been since young Japanese students had much say in the nation’s politics, when many thousands occupied campuses to protest U.S. influence and Japan’s security cooperation. Since then, Japanese students have pretty much disappeared from politics.

Yamato Aoki, a 20-year-old Keio University sophomore, is working hard to reverse that: first, by founding his own political action group; and now, advancing plans to launch a new political party. The issue that got him going most recently is oddly similar to the past: Japan’s growing military role.

Aoki believes that Shinzō Abe, Japan’s right-wing prime minister, is trying to capitalize on the political naiveté of young Japanese to quietly ram through a controversial constitutional amendment that would restore Japan’s rights to unilateral military action, a move that’s rung alarm bells in neighboring Korea and China.

Yamato Aoki is out to prevent that, but task No. 1 is to get students involved.

He sees youth suffrage as the key to enacting progressive policies, rather than the ticket to nationalist reform that Prime Minister Abe covets.

“We need to lower the voting age for elections,” he says, lambasting Abe for trying to pass controversial reform so quietly. “We can’t make prudent decisions when the specifics haven’t been presented.”

Aoki is the founder and organizer of Bokura no Ippo ga Nippon wo Kaeru (Our One Step Will Change Japan, abbreviated as “Boku1”), a student group dedicated to engaging Japan’s youth in politics. He started very young, founding the group with five friends in 2012 while still a high school student.

Dressed in jeans and a blazer, his rehearsed manner also betrays a politician’s wit. He shares little with the dynastic powerbrokers of Japan’s ruling class. The eldest of three children — a big family by today’s standards in Japan — he’s the son of a businessman and a lecturer. “There’s not a trace of politics in my family,” chuckles Aoki, enjoying the novelty of the idea.

Aoki and Boku1 organized an unprecedented summit meeting of 100 high school students from around the country with MPs from all parties, and then made it an annual event. Boku1’s 15-student staff, comprised of high schoolers and college students, have built an impressive program. Boku1 summer schools for junior and senior high schoolers are in the planning stages with local governments all over the country.The Boku1 House program has employed a TED-style franchise model to spread to coffeehouses nationwide. Boku1 estimates that it has reached well over 10,000 participants in the past two years, and the numbers are growing.

Aoki believes that youth participation in politics is essential, but recognizes the challenges. “Our youth population is comparatively small,” he says. “More often than not, we find our voices drowned out by the older majority.”

Aoki and his peers won’t capitulate. They have plans for a constitutional amendment of their own: to lower the minimum voting age from 20 to 18. Japan is one of a few developed nations left that has yet to do so. “We are truly in a league of our own,” Aoki laments. He sees youth suffrage as the key to enacting progressive policies, rather than the ticket to nationalist reform that Abe covets.

Group of students looking into camera

Yamato and 100 Japanese high school students imeeting with dozens of MPs.

His platform will be the upcoming “Zero Party” — the first party for members under 25 years old. “Even those who ostensibly support us won’t work to effect real change,” Aoki claims, gesturing his hand up and down, syncopated to the words. “If we’re serious about mobilizing the youth vote, we’ve reached a breaking point. It’s time to form a party of our own.”

Later this year, the Zero Party’s establishment will hinge on youth involvement and commitment to maintaining Japan’s shaky social welfare system, in danger of collapsing as the population ages rapidly following years of low birth rate. Aoki is determined to bypass Japan’s convoluted system of political patronage by turning to grassroots donations. The inspiration for crowdfunding and youth organization came from time spent abroad, where Aoki witnessed firsthand the potential of massive donor bases like Organizing for Action.

Not everyone thinks the movement is going anywhere fast. “Compared to the student movements of the 1960s that all had strong agendas, these students are unideological – they’re forming a soft coalition. That’s less effective in gaining seats in the Diet,” says Hiroshi Shiratori, political science professor at Hosei University. “They’re keen to use IT and social media, which may have an effect, but they are unlikely to become a strong political force.”

Aoki’s participation in political discourse began in 2009, during his year at an American high school in Black River Falls, Wisconsin. Unused to political discussion, Aoki was struck by the buzz in American schools during President Obama’s first year of office. Mock elections and other student-led political exercises left their mark on Aoki, who was 15 at the time. “American students have their own thoughts and ideas,” he says. “I was confronted with my own inexperience and ignorance.”

I don’t see any point in youth participation for referendums alone.

— Yamato Aoki

Aoki worries that this lack of education could have dire consequences. On June 13, Japan’s House of Councillors passed a bill lowering the voting age for national referendums — not elections — from 20 to 18, set to take effect four years after ratification. The measure gained widespread support across party lines, but some consider it a thinly veiled attempt to secure impressionable young voters for Prime Minister Abe’s nationalist cause.

Since Abe took office in 2012, the Ministry of Education has been trying to foist right-wing civics and history textbooks on schools throughout Japan. In line with Abe’s desire to scrap Japan’s pacifist constitution, the new textbooks downplay Japan’s commitment to peace and paint the nation’s wartime history in a more positive light. The books aren’t in widespread circulation yet, but the students receiving them now will be just old enough to vote in a national referendum, should it occur, in four years. Abe is counting on their votes to win.

Aoki is not impressed: “I don’t see any point in youth participation for referendums alone.” He wants the vote.

For now, Aoki plans to continue his efforts with Boku1 and the Zero Party in hopes of introducing more Japanese students to the political process. When he graduates in 2017, maybe something else will be in store. “I’d like being a politician,” Aoki says. “I have my sights on the office of prime minister.”

Can he get there without playing Japan’s old-man politician game? At least he’s thinking big.

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